Interview: Margot Ravenscroft, The Exonerated

The U.S. death penalty is a huge and controversial topic, with strong opinions on both sides. But whatever you believe, there’s one anti-death penalty argument that’s hard to dispute: what if the state executes someone who turns out to be innocent?

That, as it turns out, is not as unlikely as we might hope; in the USA today, for every nine executed, one is proven innocent. Amicus, a small charity that helps provide representation for those facing the death penalty in the USA, hopes to raise awareness of this appalling statistic, and their own vital work to help those affected, in a special one-off production of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated on May 16th at Middle Temple Hall.

The Exonerated is an amazingly powerful play that tells the story of six real-life cases of innocent people who were sentenced to death and subsequently exonerated,” explains Margot Ravenscroft, director of Amicus. “It’s not only their story but the story of many others still on death row, and the people in their lives. Told using extracts from actual court records and their own words, it’s beautifully woven together by the writers to leave the audience with a sense of the injustices and emotional anguish suffered by these people.”

The play debuted off-Broadway in 2002, and was later adapted into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover. For Margot and the team at Amicus, it’s become a very personal project: “I was incredibly moved the first time I saw this play, it’s a script that stays with you for life. And now, years on having personally met and worked closely with some of the people whose story this play tells, it is a real privilege to be able to produce it to benefit Amicus, in assisting people who still today face the death penalty without a fair trial process. To produce this play is something I have had in my mind for years; the impact of theatre and particularly this play on everyone who sees it live should not be underestimated.

“It’s the personal stories that touch us – the thought that but for the hand of fate it could be us, our daughter, our son. We are forced to be in their personal thoughts, drawn in by knowing the words are actually their words – not fiction but fantastical fact. The writers’ skill in bringing together these stories to a dramatic effect mean that you are left not only moved but emotionally wiser.”

The production brings together a stellar cast, including Jamie Parker, currently playing Harry Potter in the West End, barristers Leslie Thomas QC and Tunde Okewale MBE, and death row exoneree Sunny Jacobs, who plays herself. “I really wanted to have a cast with a mixture of professional actors and a few high profile legal personalities – barristers are perhaps all frustrated actors, after all,” says Margot. “Everyone who read the script was convinced. I gave Jamie Parker the script to read, knowing what a passion for justice he had. He agreed immediately, which was wonderfully touching. All of the actors have a real interest in the injustices of the world and an empathy to some of these powerful characters. Leslie and Tunde as civil rights barristers have a natural empathy with the issues of this play and understood its importance.

This production is particularly poignant too, as Sunny Jacobs will be playing herself. If you’ve ever heard Sunny speak generally, she speaks from the heart and it’s an incredible experience to have her in this production; you almost hold your breath so as not to interrupt her. Peter Pringle, another exoneree, will be playing the part of Gary – again, this really does bring the emotion of the play to the surface. Peter and Sunny are actually also husband and wife, after finding love and a rare level of understanding not only in their shared experiences of being wrongly convicted, but also in their strength of forgiveness and positive energy that’s palpable in the words and actions. They now use that strength to run a sanctuary for exonerated prisoners in rural Ireland called the Sunny Center.

“I know that people will come away from this performance with a greater understanding of the humanity of people facing the death penalty, and that they’ll be moved by these personal and touching stories. But I hope that they’ll also leave with an understanding of the importance of human rights, and support Amicus who are working with these stories every day; these are intensely dramatic and personal tales, but they’re the stories of many, many more people that we help every day.”

Amicus was founded in 1992 by Jane Officer, in memory of Andrew Lee Jones, who was executed in Louisiana in 1991. The two had met and become friends through LifeLines, a UK-based organisation that provides support to death row inmates through letter-writing. Despite a lack of scientific evidence linking him to the crime, Andrew was convicted of murder by an all-white jury, in a trial that took less than a day. Details of his mental illness were withheld by the prosecution, vital mitigation was not presented and he was represented by an inexperienced lawyer who had never tried a capital case. Good representation could have saved Andrew’s life, but instead his death became the inspiration for Amicus.

“Today Amicus takes on a huge scope of work, supported by dedicated staff and volunteers,” Margot explains. “We provide pro bono caseworkers based in the UK; working with over a dozen different firms and more than 200 individuals we’re able to coordinate key work remotely that makes a huge difference. We also send out 30-40 U.S. based interns a year, who work directly with capital lawyers in eighteen different offices across the breadth of death penalty states.

“Our bi-annual training attracts high profile experts in the field of capital defence, and introduces UK lawyers to the key issues faced and important training in preparing a capital case. We also work on various constitutional projects in support of fair trials in capital cases. Recent success in the Supreme Court in the Bobby Moore case demonstrates what can be achieved; many dedicated Amicus volunteers made this possible. The ruling in this case will affect a great many cases involving intellectually disabled people facing the death penalty.”

The statistics surrounding innocence on death row are undoubtedly shocking – but what can we here in the UK do to help“I think that coming to see The Exonerated would be a start!” answers Margot. “Human rights abuses internationally are everyone’s responsibility; educate yourself and find out what the issues are. Support Amicus; with more support we will do much more and help many more people. We have limited resources, and rely on donations in order to do our work.”

Tickets are on sale now for this special one-off performance of The Exonerated presented by Amicus on 16th May.

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird at the Barbican

Unbelievably, until late last year I’d never read Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. (My school made us study Of Mice and Men instead.) And so, in a moment of madness, I decided not to see the production at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2013 – then regretted it, when everyone started telling me how good it was.

Well, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again, so when the production transferred to the Barbican at the end of a national tour, I jumped at the chance to go and see what all the fuss was about. And now I get it.

For anyone else like me who’s been in the dark all this time, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about innocence and injustice in the Deep South, seen through the eyes of a young girl, Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch. Scout and her brother, Jem, live a comfortable life in the small town of Maycomb, surrounded by the eccentric townsfolk and morbidly fascinated with their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley. Then their father, Atticus Finch – who both children think is pretty old and boring – is hired to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Suddenly Jem, Scout and their friend Dill are exposed to a new world, in which an innocent man can be condemned because of the colour of his skin, and the most unlikely characters can suddenly become heroes.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Barbican
Zachary Momoh as Tom Robinson. Credit: Johan Persson –

The charm of the novel lies in its narrator, Scout, who makes us reconsider the horrifying events of the story from a child’s perspective. Timothy Sheader’s production captures that childlike spirit to perfection, as the company take it in turns to read aloud from the novel, slipping into costume to play their part in the story, and crawling around the stage on their hands and knees to draw a rough outline of Maycomb in chalk.

The three young stars of the show – on this occasion played by real-life siblings Jemima and Harry Bennett, with Leo Heller as Dill – give incredible performances. I couldn’t believe it was Jemima’s professional debut; she’s warm, funny and has all the simple innocence of a child, and yet there are moments, particularly when dealing with the men in her life – Jem, Dill and Atticus – where a matter-of-fact young lady can be glimpsed hiding just beneath the surface.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Barbican
Jemima Bennett as Scout.
Credit: Johan Persson –

Meanwhile, the true hero of the story, Atticus, is brought to life by Robert Sean Leonard. Seen first through the eyes of his children, he seems a little dry – but his wry smile, and, later, his fierce passion as he stands up for what’s right, soon reveal him to be a far more complex character. Leonard’s performance is spellbinding; I’ve rarely heard a theatre so silent as the moment when he sums up his defence case, with the desperate look of a man who knows it’s probably futile, but is determined to try.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Barbican
Robert Sean Leonard as Atticus Finch.  Photo by Manuel Harlan

What I enjoyed most about this production, though, is its loving homage to the original text. Each member of the company, as they file on to the stage, picks up a copy of the novel and holds it aloft in a silent salute, before beginning to read. There’s no need for a fancy set or dramatic effects – the production allows Harper Lee’s work to speak for itself in a faithful retelling of a classic story. After all, why change something that was already perfect to begin with?

If you get the chance to see this production before it closes on July 25th, don’t pass it up, because you might live to regret it. To Kill a Mockingbird, like the novel on which it’s based, is deeply troubling and yet, at the same time, utterly charming. It makes you question things that as adults, we tend to take for granted, and leaves you feeling a little like a child yourself. But I think we all need to feel that way from time to time; being a grown up is overrated.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉